Throughout his career, Ibsen investigated the interplay between modern society and the heroic individual, and in his plays he generally privileges the latter. The ordinary members of society whom he represents tend to be materialistic, and uncommitted to anything other than maintaining the status quo and advancing their petty self-interests. Jörgen Tesman, amiable though he may be, is just such a person: he mostly concerns himself with bourgeois comforts and conventions, and his academic specialization in history and medieval domestic crafts is at once arbitrary and spiritually trivial. He is in all senses a “secondary” man, studying only what other men have done and made instead of doing or making anything for himself. Indeed, by the end of the play Tesman vows not to imagine the future of civilization for himself, but rather to reconstruct Lövborg’s partially destroyed manuscript on that subject. Nonetheless, Judge Brack refers to Tesman as “outstanding,” if only because Tesman holds a socially prestigious academic post, makes good money, and is married to the great beauty Hedda. Judge Brack, for that matter, is also rather ordinary. His one violation of social convention—seeking intimacy with a married woman—is itself very conventional.
In contrast to the Tesmans and Judge Bracks of the world, Ibsen gives us the visionary Ejlert Lövborg and the extraordinary Hedda Gabler. Lövborg has risen from social disgrace to academic prominence with the publication of a conventional book that was met with enormous praise: “I put nothing into the book but what everyone would agree with,” he explains (again suggesting that the most efficient means of rising in modern society is to tell people what affirms their prejudices and beliefs). However, Lövborg is no plodder like Tesman—he has also written a manuscript he has put his true self into, one not about the past but the future: a subject fit only for visionaries. Whether or not Lövborg really is a man of genius, Ibsen declines to reveal, but we know that he is at least a courageous thinker with passionate commitments. Lövborg’s inability to drink in moderation is a sign of this passion, and it also suggests the extent to which an extraordinary person is out of place in modern society and especially vulnerable to its vices.
But it is ultimately Hedda who is the most extraordinary figure in the play. She is more intelligent, more elegantly destructive, and more possessed by a vision of courage and beauty (albeit a terrifying one) than any other character. She is an antihero who sees society as an abyss to play in, and she also has the skill to conceal her nihilism from others. We know this because her destructiveness, at least until the main action of the play, has not affected her high social standing. She limited herself to such cruelties as pulling the hair of fellow schoolgirls, brandishing General Gabler’s pistols, and tactfully mocking Aunt Julle’s hat—that is, she has been, in Lövborg’s words, “a coward,” unwilling or too canny to wholly reveal her true self. That all changes, however, when she takes it upon herself to pressure Lövborg to drink and tempts him to kill himself “beautifully.” These actions, and her consequent suicide, at last prove that Hedda is supreme in the passion of her commitments and distinctly an individual over and against modern society. “People don’t do such things!” Judge Brack exclaims after Hedda commits suicide, and, for the most part, he’s correct. Hedda is unique in her isolated individualism and her more than unconventional commitment to fulfilling herself by destroying others.
Modern Society v. the Individual ThemeTracker
Modern Society v. the Individual Quotes in Hedda Gabler
Hedda: Oh, well…I’ve got one thing at least that I can pass the time with.
Tesman: Oh, thank the good Lord for that! And what might that be, Hedda? Eh?
Hedda: My pistols… Jörgen.
Hedda: Hullo again, Mr. Brack!
Brack: Good afternoon to you, Mrs. Tesman!
Hedda: I’m going to shoot you sir!
Brack: But my dearest lady, how could you do such a thing! To that harmless old soul!
Hedda: Oh, you know how it is…these things just suddenly come over me. And then I can’t resist them. Oh, I don’t know myself how to explain it.
Hedda: I’ve often thought there’s only one thing in the world I’m any good at.
Brack: And what might that be, may I venture to ask?
Hedda: Boring myself to death.
When I think back to that time, wasn’t there something beautiful, something attractive…something courageous too, it seems to me…about this…this secret intimacy, this companionship that no one even dreamed of.
I don’t want to look at sickness and death. I must be free of everything that’s ugly.
Hedda: And what are you going to do, then?
Lövborg: Nothing. Just put an end to it all. The sooner the better.
Hedda: Ejlert Lövborg…listen to me…. Couldn’t you let it happen… beautifully?
Now I’m burning your child, Thea! With your curly hair! Your child and Ejlert Lövborg’s. I’m burning…burning your child.
Hedda: Oh, it’ll kill me…it’ll kill me, all this!
Tesman: All what, Hedda? Eh?
Hedda: All this…this farce…Jörgen.
It’s a liberation to know that an act of spontaneous courage is yet possible in this world. An act that has something of unconditional beauty.
Everything I touch seems destined to turn into something mean and farcical.
Hedda: And so I am in your power, Mr. Brack. From now on I am at your mercy.
Brack: Dearest Hedda…believe me…I shall not abuse the position.
Hedda: In your power, all the same. Subject to your will and your demands. No longer free! No! That’s a thought that I’ll never endure! Never.